Plymouth i/ˈplɪməθ/ is a city and unitary authority area on the south coast of Devon, England, about 190 miles (310 km) south-west of London. It is situated between the mouths of the rivers Plym to the east and Tamar to the west, where they join Plymouth Sound. Since 1967, the City of Plymouth has included the suburbs of Plympton and Plymstock, which are on the east side of the River Plym.
Plymouth’s history goes back to the Bronze Age, when its first settlement grew at Mount Batten. This settlement continued to grow as a trading post for the Roman Empire, until the more prosperous village of Sutton, the current Plymouth, surpassed it. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth for the New World and established Plymouth Colony – the second English settlement in what is now the United States of America. During the English Civil War the town was held by the Parliamentarians and was besieged between 1642 and 1646.
Throughout the Industrial Revolution, Plymouth grew as a major commercial shipping port, handling imports and passengers from the Americas, while the neighbouring town of Devonport grew as an important Royal Naval shipbuilding and dockyard town. In 1914 the three neighbouring and independent towns, viz., the county borough of Plymouth, the county borough of Devonport, and the urban district of East Stonehouse were merged to form a single County Borough. The new, merged town took the name of Plymouth which, in 1928, achieved city status. The city’s naval importance later led to its targeting and partial destruction during World War II, an act known as the Plymouth Blitz. After the war the city centre was completely rebuilt.
Today the city is home to around 250,000 people, making it the 19th most populous city in the United Kingdom. It is governed locally by Plymouth City Council and is represented nationally by three MPs. Plymouth’s economy is still strongly influenced by shipbuilding, but has become a more service-based economy since the 1990s. It has the ninth largest university in the United Kingdom by number of students, the University of Plymouth, and the largest operational naval base in Western Europe – HMNB Devonport. The city has ferry links to France and Spain.
Upper Palaeolithic deposits, including bones of Homo sapiens, have been found in local caves, and artefacts dating from the Bronze Age to the Middle Iron Age have been found at Mount Batten showing that it was one of the main trading ports of the country at that time. An unidentified settlement named ‘TAMARI OSTIA’ is listed in Ptolemy’s Geographia and is presumed to be located in the present city.
The settlement of Plympton, further up the River Plym than the current Plymouth, was also an early trading port, but the river silted up in the early 11th century and forced the mariners and merchants to settle at the current day Barbican near the river mouth. At the time this village was called Sutton, meaning south town in Old English. The name Plymouth, meaning «mouth of the River Plym» was first mentioned in a Pipe Roll of 1211.
Prysten House, Finewell Street, 1498, is the oldest surviving house in Plymouth, and built from local Plymouth Limestone and Dartmoor granite
During the Hundred Years’ War a French attack (1340) burned a manor house and took some prisoners, but failed to get into the town. In 1403 the town was burned by Breton raiders. A series of fortifications were built in the Tudor and Elizabethan eras, which include the four round towers featured on the city coat of arms; the remains of two of these can still be found at Mount Batten and at Sutton Pool below the Royal Citadel. See 1591 Spry Map of Plimmouth and surrounding areas, British Library
During the 16th century locally produced wool was the major export commodity. Plymouth was the home port for successful maritime traders, among them Sir John Hawkins, who led England’s first foray into the Atlantic slave trade, as well as Sir Francis Drake. According to legend, Drake insisted on completing his game of bowls on the Hoe before engaging the Spanish Armada in 1588. In 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World from Plymouth, establishing Plymouth Colony – the second English colony in what is now the United States of America.
During the English Civil War Plymouth sided with the Parliamentarians and was besieged for almost four years by the Royalists. The last major attack by the Royalist was by Sir Richard Grenville leading thousands of soldiers towards Plymouth, but they were defeated by the Plymothians. The civil war ended as a Parliamentary win, but monarchy was restored by King Charles II in 1660, who imprisoned many of the Parliamentary heroes on Drake’s Island. Construction of the Royal Citadel began in 1665, after the Restoration; it was armed with cannon facing both out to sea and into the town, rumoured to be a reminder to residents not to oppose the Crown.
Throughout the 17th century Plymouth had gradually lost its pre-eminence as a trading port. By the mid-17th century commodities manufactured elsewhere in England cost too much to transport to Plymouth and the city had no means of processing sugar or tobacco imports, although it played a relatively small part in the Atlantic slave trade during the early 18th century. In nearby Stoke Damerel (which became the town of Devonport) the first dockyard, HMNB Devonport, opened on the banks of the River Tamar in 1690. Further docks were built in 1727, 1762 and 1793. In the 18th century new houses were built near the dock, called Plymouth Dock at the time, and a new town grew up. In 1712 there were 318 men employed and by 1733 it had grown to a population of 3,000 people.
Prior to the latter half of the 18th century grain, timber and then coal were Plymouth’s greatest imports. During this time the real source of wealth was from the neighbouring town of Devonport – the major employer in the entire region was the dockyard. The Three Towns conurbation of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport enjoyed some prosperity during the late 18th and early 19th century and were enriched by a series of neo-classical urban developments designed by London architect John Foulston. Foulston was important for the town and was responsible for several grand public buildings, many now destroyed, including the Athenaeum, the Theatre Royal and Royal Hotel, and much of Union Street.
The mile-long Breakwater in Plymouth Sound was designed by John Rennie and work started in 1812; numerous technical difficulties and repeated storm damage meant that it was not completed until 1841, twenty years after Rennie’s death. In the 1860s, a ring of Palmerston forts was constructed around the outskirts of Devonport, to protect the dockyard from attack from any direction. Some of the greatest imports to Plymouth from the Americas and Europe during the latter half of the 19th century included maize, wheat, barley, sugar cane, guano, sodium nitrate and phosphate. Aside from the dockyard in Devonport, industries in Plymouth such as the gasworks, the railways and tramways and a number of small chemical works had begun to develop in the 19th century, continuing into the 20th century.
During World War I, Plymouth was the port of entry for many troops from around the Empire and also developed as a facility for the manufacture of munitions. Although major units of the Royal Navy moved to the safety of Scapa Flow, Devonport was an important base for escort vessels and repairs. Flying boats operated from Mount Batten.
Royal William Victualling Yard, Stonehouse by Sir John Rennie,1825–33.
In World War II, Devonport was the headquarters of Western Approaches Command until 1941 and Sunderland flying boats were operated by the Royal Australian Air Force. It was an important embarkation point for US troops for D-Day. The city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe, in a series of 59 raids known as the Plymouth Blitz. Although the dockyards were the principal targets, much of the city centre and over 3,700 houses were completely destroyed and more than 1,000 civilians lost their lives. This was largely due to Plymouth’s status as a major portCharles Church was hit by incendiary bombs and partially destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz, but has not been demolished, as it is now an official permanent monument to the bombing of Plymouth during World War II.
The redevelopment of the city was planned by Sir Patrick Abercrombie in his 1943 Plan for Plymouth whilst simultaneously working on the reconstruction plan for London. Regarded at the time as the most influential city planner in Britain, responsible also for the his vision for the radical reconstruction of the city according to Beaux Arts and Garden City principles attracted the work of some of the very best national architects of their generation which can be seen in the ‘Heroic Modernist’ style of the principal boulevards of Royal Parade and Armada Way. Between 1951 and 1957 over 1000 homes were completed every year mostly using innovative prefabricated systems of just three main types; by 1964 over 20,000 new homes had been built transforming the dense overcrowded and unsanitary slums of the pre-War city into a low density, dispersed suburbia. Most of the city centre shops had been destroyed and those that remained were cleared to enable a zoned reconstruction according to his plan. In 1962 the modernist high rise of the Civic Centre was constructed, an architecturally significant example of mid twentieth century civic slab-and-tower set piece allowed to fall into disrepair by its owner Plymouth City Council but recently grade II listed by English Heritage to prevent its demolition.
Postwar, Devonport Dockyard was kept busy refitting aircraft carriers such as the Ark Royal and, later, nuclear submarines while new light industrial factories were constructed in the newly zoned industrial sector attracting rapid growth of the urban population. The army had substantially left the city by 1971, with barracks pulled down in the 1960s, however the city remains home to the 42 Commando of the Royal Marines